Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Drifting Away

I remember seeing the first Ice Age film back in 2002. It was a resurgent time for animated films, with the likes of Shrek and Monsters Inc. having set new, high standards for cartoon entertainment, and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was was created to finally give recognition to the artistic importance of these movies. Compared to the excellence of titles like Lilo & Stitch, Ice Age was a fine, if not particularly special, release that focused on the survival of mammals during the Paleolithic ice age. I remember LIKING Ice Age, but also thinking that there was no real reason to revisit the lives of Manny the woolly mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the smilodon (Dennis Leary). That's why I've effectively avoided the film's first two sequels over the past decade, and also why only the first Ice Age received a nomination for Best Animated Feature (it lost to Spirited Away), while the others have earned just middling reviews. Still, the series has proved popular with the kids, so Manny and company are back in Ice Age: Continental Drift, and I was just curious enough to see what the three heroes have been up to in the past ten years.

Bet he's starting to look a little tasty right now...
After starting off with the dialogue-less The Longest Daycare starring Maggie Simpson (a wry and fun short), we discover that things have certainly changed for our heroes. No longer alone in the world, Manny has found Ellie, the love of his life (Queen Latifah), and the two have a teenage daughter named Peaches (Keke Palmer), who is just beginning to discover boys. Sid is briefly reunited with the family that abandoned him, only to have them drop off his elderly grandmother Granny (Wanda Sykes) before quickly escaping again. Soon Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel (about the only reason this series has lasted as long as it has) is up to his usual antics, finding a place to bury his beloved acorn. When this action causes the breakup of Pangaea into the continents we now know, our Manny, Sid and Diego are separated from their herd on a small, uncontrollable iceberg. Soon Manny and his crew (alongside Granny, who accidentally tags along for the ride) find themselves the targets of pirates, led by the gorilla Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage) and his feline first mate Shira (Jennifer Lopez). It's a race home for our heroes, who won't let anything get between Manny and the reuniting of his family.

Look, it's the foreign box office! Start paddling!
I'll give this to the new Ice Age; the animation is much better than I expected. All the previews I have seen had led me to believe that the computer animation, especially the background art, would pale in comparison to other recent contemporary fare, even less than mediocre titles Kung Fu Panda 2 or Puss in Boots. Fortunately, what looks like bad animation on small screens actually comes to life on the big ones. It's still nothing in comparison to anything you've seen in a Pixar title, but the backgrounds are amazingly lifelike, and the character animations are fluid and spotless.

His heart, it breaks.
Sadly the story is what really lacks any depth, though this does have the benefit of making it easy for the children in the audience to follow along. Manny and company's story pits them consistently against Gutt's pirates, with apparently no other major predators residing in the middle of the ocean. Meanwhile the biggest story on the mainland is not escaping the slow moving rock wall that threatens to wipe out the herd, but Peaches' discovery that the boy she has a crush on is not all he turns out to be. Meanwhile Scrat's story is more out of favor than usual, and while he is still the film's most entertaining character, his skits are far closer in quality to the rest of the story than they used to be. Or maybe I'm just getting older. But where the story lacks depth it makes up for in honesty, as the motivations and desires of all the main characters is easy enough to follow for both adults and their kids.

Not the kind of people you want to meet in the middle of the ocean.
Directors Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier also do a great job putting together a cast that, with very few exceptions, feel at home in this ice-cold world. Still, this film wasn't a challenge for everyone. While the returning Romano, Leary, and Latifah had to just be themselves, only Leguizamo and newcomers Palmer and Josh Gad feel as though they're playing actual characters in a story. Still, the interplay between Manny, Sid and Diego more than makes up for any lack of creativity on the actors' side, and Latifah and Palmer hold their own in their storyline. The pirates are also a lively bunch, featuring the talented voices of Dinklage (the image of Tyrion Lannister playing a giant gorilla makes me smile inside), Nick Frost, Aziz Ansari and Rebel Wilson in what might be the best additions to the franchise. And Sykes has the perfect voice and comedic timing to make her character even more timeless as Scrat. But not everyone's inclusion was a slam dunk; when did Jennifer Lopez become so DRY a performer? Shira's potential romance with Diego means little when you just don't care about her, no matter how many cliched transformations the villain-turned-hero undergoes. And why did the producers bother going through the casting and promoting of musical artists Drake and Nicki Minaj when the pair would do so little, and not even all that well? These gripes are thankfully limited, and the cast on the whole does what needs to be done to make the film an entertaining experience.

I know who I'm rooting for.
In the end, Ice Age:Continental Drift ends up quite close in quality to this past June's Madagascar 3. That's not too bad a place to be, as most animated films released this year have been somewhat underwhelming, even the admittedly highly-anticipated Brave. Only time will tell how well we remember this latest Ice Age outing, but this was certainly better than some of the award-nominated fare in the last few years, and the franchise is still popular enough to churn out a few more sequels. I can actually recommend this one to adults as well as kids, and that's probably the best thing I've ever said about an animated film in 2012.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

I've got zero interest in seeing this film (I remember seeing the first "Ice Age" and not thinking too much of it) but I've been looking for an opportunity (the next time I go to the multiplex to see another film) to sneak in and see the Maggie Simpsons short that runs before.

Just got to find a film who's start time makes this possible.